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Can Labour recover?

Gerry Hassan on the strange death of Labour in Scotland

Things have changed dramatically in Scotland. Our political map has altered completely. The Nationalist landslide has carried nearly all before it, winning in areas it never thought possible. Labour have been pushed back to a few isolated pockets, overwhelmed even in its former West of Scotland heartland.

It is possible to note the limits of the SNP's appeal at the moment of their greatest triumph (45.4% on FPTP vote), just as it was salutary to do with New Labour in 97 and Thatcher in 87. This is of that magnitude: a watershed, realigning election, changing fundamentally the contours of Scottish and British politics.

Scottish Labour won a mere 31.7% of the constituency vote and 26.3% of the regional vote; it took a mere 15 out of 73 FPTP constituencies. This broke a number of unenviable records for the party; the lowest number of FPTP seats since the disaster of 1931, and the worst share of the constituency vote since 1918, before Labour became a major national party in Scotland.

Post-election the party still claims that its constituency vote only fell 0.5%, just as it clung to the fact in 2007 that it only fell 2.5%. Now the party argues that the SNP victory is all down to the collapse of the Lib Dem vote and Nationalist ability to attract protest votes; last time the claim was the SNP victory was due to former Green and Scottish Socialist voters moving to the Nationalists. What should be noted is that in the last two elections the SNP has managed to attract voters from across the political spectrum. Labour's vote is static or slowly declining, representing declining communities in Scotland.

This has been a long time coming. What we have seen is the slow decline of Scottish Labour: part of a long hollowing out, without a major spike or tipping point until May 5th. Devolution was always going to challenge and undermine the Labour one party state which had grown to dominate Scottish political and public life: a point no senior figure in the party seemed to grasp.

Scottish society has changed from the one which gave birth to Labour hegemony. There were three pillars of the post-war Scottish state: the predominance of council housing, trade union membership and Labour dominance of Local Government. The Scotland of the 1960s and 1970s saw each of these represent majorities of the population but from 1979 onward slowly whither to become minorities. With this Labour politics needed to change and adapt.

If the old ways of Scottish Labour are over, what does the party do? It is both simple and complex. This is a party which decided in 1994 to call itself ‘the Scottish Labour Party', but it doesn't really exist: it isn't an autonomous, distinct, credible force in the new terrain of Scottish politics.

What Scottish Labour has to do is create itself. The Scottish Labour Party has to become a reality as autonomous, self-governing party. For all the mood music of Scottish Labour becoming more Scottish throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and its change of name, no substantial changes or shifts of power have occurred from London to Scotland.

Then the party needs a new form of leadership. Not an election for the Leader of the Scottish Labour Group of the Scottish Parliament. The newly elected leader will be the sixth leader over the last twelve years in that post. That tells you something damning. The current leader of Scottish Labour is Ed Miliband. This needs to change urgently.

Iain Gray's leadership can be viewed as insipid and uninspiring but the issue is how did he manage to become leader. George Galloway, former Labour MP asked, ‘How has the party of William Ross and Donald Dewar shrunk to the party of Iain Gray?' The party had exhausted its depleted resources, and now looks set to draw from a set of personnel for its sixth leader, who could make Gray look inspired: Jackie Baillie, John Park and Johann Lamont. These are all Labour ‘base' candidates, and the base is part of the problem.

The party has to take on the Westminster arrogance of some of its Scottish Labour MPs. These people look at the difference between Douglas Alexander and say Iain Gray, and believe that Westminster has Labour's A team and the Scottish Parliament has its B team. They have to stop thinking like this; it is part of the problem.

The Scottish Labour Westminster group look at the political map of Scotland and see its red swathe due to FPTP – with 41 out of 59 seats Labour at the last election, and believe that this reflects the true strength of the party. They still have that kind of insularity, arrogance and lack of grasp of pluralist politics.

This mentality still feels ‘put out' by the creation of the Scottish Parliament, and has at points been jealous about the amount of media attention showered on Labour MSPs. A prevailing opinion of Labour MPs has been to scratch their heads at the rationale of a Labour Government agreeing to an electoral system for the Scottish Parliament which didn't produce the kind of automatic Labour majority they were used to. That world view will think now that the introduction of PR gave the SNP a platform and critical mass to get to the situation we are in now.

Then we have the issue of Labour and Scottish identity and nationalism. Labour have been for a Scottish Parliament since the time of Keir Hardie and did legislate for it in government but strangely it had no idea what a Scottish Parliament was meant to do. The party needs to have a reality check about the policy and vision vacuum at its heart.

To put it bluntly, Scottish Labour became a party of negativity not just in this election but over the last 30 years from 1979 onwards. Scottish Labour has defined itself against three forces: first, Thatcherism, New Labour, and now, Scottish nationalism. This politics of oppositionalism is directly related to its defence of the Labour entitlement culture.

Scottish Labour has to come to terms with Scottish nationalism, a force which has shaped Scottish politics for much of the last 40 years and which is now set to shape things for the foreseeable future. Many of Scottish Labour's politicians, whether A or B team, have a near-deranged, myopic view of the SNP; politicians of a calibre such as Douglas Alexander, Wendy Alexander and Margaret Curran act like this. One Labour candidate put it during the election, ‘We have simply not got to grips with the Salmond factor in this election. Some people in our campaign believe if they hate Alex Salmond everyone else should hate him'.

What is it about the SNP which makes Labour mad? It isn't that the SNP has on occasions dared to co-operate with the Tories in Westminster, famously contributing to the demise of the Callaghan Labour Government in 1979. It is much more guttural, emotional and deep than any logical, evidence based account of history. Scottish Labour hate the SNP because they remind themselves of their own inadequacies; the SNP have for all their compromises and shortcomings, a sense of idealism, purpose and story; Scottish Labour doesn't.

Another Labour candidate put their predicament and search for a leader and purpose. ‘We have to find someone to lead this party in Scotland more effectively, but who that person is, no one knows.' They put this crisis in wider context, ‘How has the party that created and delivered devolution become the party that cannot adapt to devolution'?

Scottish Labour needs a new mission and purpose, one profoundly Scottish, telling a story which dares to be Scottish whilst acknowledging the British dimension. This account needs to take responsibility for the Labour Scotland the party has created, apologise for its mismanagement and authoritarianism, and make a distinct break with part of its past. It has to do all of this with less resources, networks, personnel and confidence than it has had since it became a national party in the 1920s; this will make the party's renewal more difficult, more urgent and needed.

Scottish Labour has to aim to give voice to a new type of progressive politics, one drawing on the best traditions of Scottish social democracy and come to terms with the broader forces of Scottish nationalism, which exist well beyond the SNP. In the political balance between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Labour has to realise that it is the latter that will decide the future of Scottish politics.

Scottish Labour has a proud history, traditions and stories. Yet the Scotland it created and which gave it its strength and dominance no longer exists and so far the party has shown no sign that it understands the nature of society, or the appeal and raison d'être of the Scottish Nationalists. The immediate future does not look like it will be a very positive one for a party which took people for granted for too long and has so far refused to change. The omens for it in the next few years do not look good.